Where Diego finds life in a cemetery, sees bright colours on a mausoleum, and is rendered speechless by a cow’s tongue.
Third part of three.
At the Zuihōden-mae Loople Sendai stop . . .
. . . I boarded a bus bound for my next destination: the site of Aoba Castle, the fortress-palace from which Date Masamune and his successors ruled over the Sendai Domain.
The way to the castle was previously much shorter than the one we used today, but damage from the 2011 earthquake forced the closure of the most direct route. For the time being, the Loople has been detoured onto a longer path that goes right through one of the campuses of Tōhoku University. More time consuming but presumably safer, and we were rewarded with views of a major Japanese university (not something I’d usually see otherwise) as well as, in a region still not fully recovered from the disaster of two years ago, the encouraging sight of hordes of students on their way between classes.
After arriving, I first headed for the small castle museum – not as easy to find as one might think, hidden as it was in a commercialised area of the grounds with shops and restaurants all around. The place wasn’t very large, but it had some good exhibits, including historic artefacts and models depicting the castle compound as it once looked back in its heyday.
From here, I made my way to where the central part of the castle once stood. A lot of the original structure was dismantled or destroyed during the Meiji era, and more was lost to wartime bombing in 1945, so there was very little left for me to look at when I arrived. Perhaps the most prominent feature of the castle site today is an equestrian statue of Date Masamune, clad in armour and proudly wearing his famous crescent-moon helmet.
The elevated site also offered fine views over the city below.
Whilst I was enjoying the views, a troupe of costumed performers strolled out into the open ground near the statue and began posing for photographs together with the tourists who were there. I’m kicking myself quite severely now for not bothering to take pictures, and for not bothering to queue up with the other visitors for a snapshot of my own, as the gaudily garbed group – depicting fictionalised versions of key figures from Sendai’s history – were certainly a picturesque bunch, and they’re actually well known enough for me to have heard of them before (I think from a documentary I saw some time ago). In any case, their loud cries of “Zunda Mochi!” (the local stand-in for “Cheese!”, I imagine) whenever pictures were about to be snapped will probably be one of the more lively and interesting memories I’ll have of my visit to the castle.
With that, as far as sightseeing was concerned, my time in Sendai was over. I walked over to the Loople bus stop and – after a rather long wait in the hot sunshine of early afternoon – boarded my ride back to the station.
All right, now for some lunch. Even before coming here, I decided that I shouldn’t leave without first tasting the local speciality gyūtan: slices of grilled beef tongue cooked over charcoal. Since I was due to catch a train shortly, there seemed no better place to try Sendai’s most famous delicacy than at the train station itself. A group of gyūtan restaurants on the third floor – along a stretch of corridor named, appropriately enough, Gyūtan-dōri (Gyūtan Street) – offers travellers the convenience of sampling the dish from outlets representing some of the city’s best-known chains.
Based on a recommendation I found online, I settled on the station branch of one of Sendai’s most popular brands, Rikyū. There was a line – usually a good sign – and whilst waiting for a seat patrons can easily pick out options from the menu posted outside.
I chose the one at the top of the list, a 1,995-yen set meal consisting of grilled gyūtan served with rice and oxtail soup. Truth be told, at the time I wasn’t sure what made it more special than the less-expensive option underneath; apart from the red kanji kiwami (“extreme” or “highest”) in the name it was pretty much identical. But thanks to two posts (this and this) I found recently – read “tonight”, as I was doing clean-up research for this post – I finally put two and two together: the difference is that the “kiwami” set comes with thick, juicy cuts of meat from the softer, more expensive part of the cow’s tongue. (That’s one mystery solved, long after the fact.)
After a bit of waiting at my counter-side seat, with every passing moment made unbearably longer by the scents wafting from the kitchen grills right in front of me, a server came by to set out my lunch.
So what did I think of it?
Well, I wasn’t blown away by the experience. It was quite good, let me be clear about that – only perhaps not good enough for me to try it again anytime soon. And then there was something I couldn’t escape, with every mouthful my mind was unable to ignore the fact that I was eating a cow’s tongue. Any admonitions regarding the fact that a muscle was a muscle, whichever part of the animal it came from, would have been lost on me: I’d never put a tongue in the same class as a tenderloin. Still, I’d put this down entirely to personal taste (and the powerful psychological effect of the voice in my head screaming that’s a tongue you’re chewing on mate!), especially in light of the apparently well-satisfied diners around me; I still highly recommend giving this local speciality a go if you find yourself in Sendai. Who knows, you may end up liking it far more than I did.
There was still a whole lot worth visiting in Sendai and its environs (Japan Guide offers a good summary), but time was running short – the rest will need to wait for a future visit. For now, it’s back to Tōkyō for the highlight of this journey’s last evening in Japan (more on that in my next post).
Trains running on Akita Shinkansen services are normally coupled with Tōhoku Shinkansen trains for the stretch between Morioka and Tōkyō. In this case, my E3 was hooked to an E5, which I also had the option of booking at the ticket counter. Alas, they’d run out of window seats for that run, and I decided that having the privilege of watching the scenery was worth giving up the newer train for.
Not that it mattered very much – the Green Car seats on the E3 were more than adequate.
Back to Tōkyō now, under lead-grey skies, to enjoy my last evening in Japan this year.
In my next post, we’ll watch the Japanese capital morph into an ocean of light from the highest vantage point in the city.